Developing as a Leader of Strong Character

Leading well is a great challenge, requiring the leader to dedicate his mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual resources to his vocational calling. To be effective and ethical in a typical organizational setting, a leader should communicate a clear vision and purpose to followers. You also should demonstrate a strong moral character in honoring the rights of others while fulfilling your obligations in a principled, knowledgeable, and skillful manner.

Succeeding at this may appear daunting.  Pressures and temptations are ever present for a leader facing complex interactions of competing responsibilities. Indeed, success in ethical leadership requires not only spiritual knowledge and insight but also integrity of character.

A character or virtue ethic does not focus on rules or changing contexts or even primarily on specific decisions or acts. Instead, the person of moral character integrity should develop a moral compass or moral character combining the right inner dispositions or virtues that guide or incline him to act appropriately regardless of the circumstances. The morally virtuous person will have developed the inclinations to habitually know and act in the right way, at the right time, for the right end. You can seek to develop more virtuous dispositions as you follow them (in your decisions and behaviors) over your lifetime. As you act according to a virtue’s direction, you will gradually grow as a moral person. You cannot expect to become completely virtuous, but you can hone and strengthen your moral character.

What virtues do you need to develop? There are many lists of virtues—several are offered below. But you need to decide for yourself. I do not recommend a specific list that applies to everyone. However, Beabout (2012) argues that the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom is the one essential and universal virtue needed by leaders and employees to establish a virtuous culture in a business organization. Practical wisdom involves a person’s ability to perceive a particular situation accurately, to have the appropriate feelings and desires about it, to deliberate as to the proper action in the situation, and to act in the right way. This virtue requires experience and growth based on reflection about purpose and past experiences.

Assess yourself in light of your own role in your organization and your life context. Focus on developing through your habitual practice those qualities that you believe you most need to excel. This blog series suggests five ways of promoting development of the character a person needs to become a good leader:

  • accepting challenging assignments
  • engaging a personal character mentor
  • observing other leaders in action
  • reading biographies and accounts of leadership
  • keeping a journal to record and assess leadership observations and experiences.

By adopting some or all of these practices you can grow as a leader.

But is all this too idealistic? How can an ordinary mortal, even if truly called to faith and a leadership role, expect to succeed as a good leader, one who is not only ethical and effective, but also spiritually-directed? Trials and tribulations will arise to block one’s way.

Developing into a good leader is indeed a great challenge. Making the correct choices and having the disposition to follow them ethically and spiritually, in spite of pressures to act otherwise, requires developed moral character strengths. Perfection is out of reach in this fallen world, but the person committed to develop his character can grow in virtue. Whether or not he achieves financial wealth and fame in the world, he can become a good leader—effective, ethical, and spiritually-minded.

J. Thomas Whetstone

Some Important Virtues for a Spiritual Leader

Classical Virtues                           Christian Virtues                     Moral Excellences

                                                               (1 Cor. 13:13)                               (2 Pet. 1:5-7)

Practical wisdom                                     Faith                                          Knowledge

Courage                                                   Hope                                          Self-control

Temperance                                             Love                                          Perseverance

Justice                                                                                                        Godliness

                                                                                                                   Brotherly Kindness


3 Highly valued virtues in business leaders:

  • Honesty, with technical competence (Whetstone, 2001)
  • Humility and professional will (Collins, 2001)
  • Practical Wisdom (Beabout, 2012)   


Beabout, J. (2012). “Management as a domain-relative practice that requires and develops practical wisdom.” Business Ethics Quarterly. 22:2, 405-432.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. NY: HarperCollins.

Whetstone, J. T. (2001). “How virtue fits within business ethics.” Journal of Business Ethics. 3:2, 101-114.

>>This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.  See previous blogs for elaboration of the suggestions.


Developing Leader Virtues: Suggestion #4



A good leader must have the right skills for leading ethically.  But this is not enough.  Some business educators have come to stress the importance of nurturing the creative mind and the heart, rather than maintaining an almost exclusive devotion to technical training.  Business education needs to be humanized (Donaldson & Freeman, 1994; Walton, 1994). Ethics is best—and most successfully—taught along with the value-engaging perspectives of history, philosophy, literature, languages, and intercultural studies.  Solomon (1994) recommends that this include cultivation of the virtues and a concern for inspiring students to be good, humane persons.  This is C. S. Lewis’s message in The Abolition of Man (1944, 2001).  Education should build hearts devoted to traditional, universal virtues such as courage, honor, and love of neighbor; the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought (Aristotle, quoted in Lewis (1944, 2001, p. 16).

But how can you, a working leader, improve your values perspective, and thus your heart, without returning to university for a humanities degree?  You can adopt the habit of reading great works of literature, including biographies and autobiographies of leaders.  Reading such literature can help you better appreciate how others came to recognize and address leadership challenges.  Of course, this is not a new idea or a hidden secret for leadership success—just note how the better speakers and the most respected leaders refer to what they have read.

What should you read?  It’s up to you.  You can find edifying books, articles, and videos at the library and the bookstore; by soliciting recommendations from counselors and mentors, coworkers, friends, and teachers; and from literature reviews.  Through disciplined reading and discussion with your colleagues, you can nourish your intellect and stimulate your motivation for character development and relational skills.

You might object that you are too busy to read, if it is not required for the immediate and many tasks that always are on your plate.  Why should you spend your valuable time reading biographies and other works of literature?  You don’t need to become a bookworm, but you can consider the time you devote to reading as an investment.  The returns will be in terms of your expanded near-term knowledge and creative insights.  Moreover, over the longer term, you will likely come to realize that you are a more complete and interesting, even wiser, person. You might well become recognized as a better leader.


Donaldson, T. & R. E. Freeman, eds. (1994). Business as a Humanity. NY: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, C. S. (1944, 2001). The Abolition of Man. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Solomon, R. (1994). “Business and humanities: An Aristotelian approach.” In T. Donaldson & R. E. Freeman, eds. (1994). Business as a Humanity. NY: Oxford University Press, 45-75.

Walton, C. (1994). “Management education: Seeing the round earth squarely.” In T. Donaldson & R. E. Freeman, eds. (1994). Business as a Humanity. NY: Oxford University Press, 109-141.

This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.  See previous blogs for additional suggestions.